It is relatively easy to group biological organisms according to their appearances, behavior, etc. There are easily discernible patterns, and often there are some clear boundaries between such groups, for example breeding could be impossible between individuals belonging to different groups.
A good example of such grouping is a set of breeds of dogs. Dogs of different breeds are clearly different in their appearances, skills, character, patterns of their interactions with their owners, etc.
Because different breeds of dogs could inter-breed and some breeds require assistance of veterinarian to breed, this stable separation of all dogs on distinctive forms could be explained only in context of dog-owners, and hence the system of dogs and their owners has a specific pattern – a set of stable breeds of dogs.
In this case, it is obvious, why such stable groups exist – they are consciously maintained. Other cases, as stable groups in the wild, require analysis.
In complex dynamic systems, there are states of the system, which are “stable”. Knowing such states is useful in prediction and control of the system.
Biological forms are stable states in the bio-system. These stable states exist because of the relatively stable geographic and weather environment, limited set of combinations of biological mechanisms, which could be deployed in a biological unit, limitations on possible forms of interactions between biological units, etc.
One has to specify, what a biological form is, i.e. one has to specify which stable states of the bio-system are of interest.
One dimension of this specification is obvious – it should be a group of creatures recreating itself through some mechanism (division, sexual procreation). Sometimes, one has to combine similar groups of this type, even when they never interact with each other, if they are similar.
In many cases, another dimension has to be added. Many creatures live in close symbiosis. They do not exist in separation, as some types of yeasts exist only in some plants, or some bacteria exist only in guts of some animals (baby elephants have to pick up these bacteria from dung of their mothers). In such cases, it makes sense to define a biological form as a group of such symbiotic creatures.
Some creatures exist in communities or colonies, as ants or bacteria in a mouth. In communities, there is specialization of creatures or variation of functioning depending on a place in the colony, which makes functioning of community not reducible to functioning of its members. In such cases, the community of creatures should be viewed a biological form. This is a third dimension of classification.
One could extend this reasoning to complex creatures, which are a system of different specialized cells functioning in concert.
An organism, community or colony could have its own stable states – variants of functioning, but this is level of detail, which is beyond interest at this point.
To discover stable states, one has to specify stable circumstances of the biological form, which sometimes is not easy, because living creatures change their environment and interact with each other. In many respects, the definition of the biological form relies heavily on the definition of circumstances, which are perceived as invariant.
A biological form is a group of reproducing and interacting units (cells, organisms, etc.), which could be subdivided onto sub-groups of units functioning in a different way, for example specialized. These units cooperate (in different degree in different biological forms). Inclusion of each sub-group in a biological form is essential to understanding of functioning of the system. It could be because such sub-group cannot function in isolation, as gut bacteria, or because it is impossible to understand functioning of the group without inclusion of such sub-group, as in case of colony of bacteria. As an extension of this idea, complex organisms are also presented as a “community” of specialized units.
Biological forms are compared in two dimensions: structure and functioning of their units and structure and functioning of the community of these units.
Transition from one biological form to another is also viewed in same dimensions: transformation of units and transformation of communities.
Some biological forms cannot be defined in isolation from their social organization, ants for example. Different “units” of ants could look differently, but they are simply specialized units of the same biological form.
In the wild, one simply observes living creatures and their interactions and makes decision how they have to be grouped to define a smallest possible group, which is a meaningful biological form.
Breeders go beyond that descriptive approach; they make mental images, models of potential groups and through experimentation find which variants are actually potential stable states of the bio-system.
Consistent separation of potential stable states of the bio-system, states in which creatures could exist, and realized stable states, where real creatures do exist, is a powerful tool of analysis and classification of the biological forms.
With this separation comes specific analysis of conditions, when a potential stable state could become a realized one and vice versa.
Hence, it is important to include potential stable states into definition of biological form.
Note that inclusion in analysis of potential biological forms implies that at least theoretically the same type of a biological form could emerge in different places, which have no direct contact.
The first task of analysis of biological forms is classification – finding biological forms and establishment relationships between them. As it was emphasized above, realized and potential biological forms have to be taken in consideration.
It is obvious that at current state of science, studying of potential biological forms is difficult, but the fact that their existence is assumed provides proper methodological approach in such classification.
The macro tasks of classification are:
· finding a set of potential stable states for a given set of conditions
· finding how this set changes with the changes of conditions
· finding a set of realized stable states
The detailed tasks of classification are:
· finding conditions of transitions from one stable state to another, and describing realized transitions, where creatures actually underwent such transition
· finding conditions of emergence of new potential stable states and their disappearance, and describing emergence and disappearance of realized stable states
· finding conditions of splitting of a potential stable state into a group of new potential stable states and coalescence of a group of potential stable states into one potential stable state, and describing of splitting and coalescence of realized stable states
Proper selection of characteristics of biological forms and analysis of their oscillations is crucial not only for proper classification but also in some practical applications
George Sugihara observed that rules of fishing, where only fish above some size could be harvested, established to preserve fisheries, lead to opposite consequences. In the time of resources stress, fish population without large resilient individuals diminishes in size much quicker than without such rules and in times of abundant resources young fish multiplies fast, population grows quickly and depletes resources.
This shows how lack of understanding of the dynamic of a biological form – of a stable state in the biological system, leads to bad management and endangerment of the stability of the form.
To assert that a state is stable means asserting that its vital characteristics oscillate. There boundaries of such oscillations, beyond which the stable state unravels. It transitions in something else – dissipates, flips into another stable state, or splits into a few new stable states.
In this case, a vital characteristic is the size of the population of fish. Oscillation of this characteristic is affected by fishing, and cited above rules of fishing lead to high amplitude in oscillation of the size of population and hence sometimes dangerously low size of population.
There is a clear correlation between oscillation of sizes of populations of the biological form and oscillation of the size of renewable resource (grass, prey, etc.), which this form consumes.
When vital characteristics of a biological form oscillate, they could reach an area, where the survival of this form becomes questionable, i.e. the stable state reaches transition from realized state to not realized one.
Hence, some stable states could be more stable than the other. Some biological forms have smaller probability of self-destructive internal development and could survive broader variations of environment than the others.
George Sugihara noted that relatively small changes in circumstances of the biological form (introduction of “novel” way of fishing, not taking catch, which is easier to take as small fish, but leaving out small fish) could lead to potentially self-destructive oscillations of the characteristics of the biological form.
To have high degree of stability, a biological form has to have some damper, which moderates oscillations of its vital characteristics.
In the case of fish, large fish, which limits procreation of small fish in times of plenty and have better chances to survive in bad times, plays the role of such damper.
Fishing rules caused changes of average size of fish – it became smaller. The rule of fishing created new environment, where the stable state corresponds to smaller average size of fish. This shows how important it is to define the relatively invariant environment to define the biological form. Change of the environment leads to the change of the form.
Hence, what is changing fast because it is affected by the creatures should not be viewed as environment of the biological form. When the environment of the biological form is changed externally, one should anticipate new characteristics of the form or even change of the form.
Usually one monitors characteristics of realized stable states of the system and makes conclusions about potential states and states transitions.
One uses a set of characteristics to differentiate biological forms.
There is an important type of characteristic of biological forms – a combinatorial characteristic, when one simply asserts that the form has some set of features or does not have it. These characteristics are easy to “measure”, hence they are broadly used.
Note that these characteristics could describe physical appearances of units of the form or their social organization.
When conditions change, it could be that in a changed system instead of some stable state one finds a set of new stable states, which emerged from the original one, or the original state transitions into another stable state with different characteristics.
Some such transitions are more probable than others. When one follows only combinatorial characteristics, transitions, where only one characteristic changes (a new feature appears or an old feature disappears) are more likely than transitions with multiple changes.
One could imagine environment with a set of stable states and a new biological form placed in it. Over time, the system will change and instead of one biological form a few new forms appear through the series of above described “split” and “flip” transitions.
Observer of this development could develop an illusion that this is a guided development, an illusion that an original biological form is “adjusting” to changing conditions. While in fact, this is only the manifestation of the set of stable states in the system. These states are exposed through a very “artificial” setting, where at some point one biological form is introduced in the system.
Transitions of biological forms in the case of dogs breeding are guided. In the wild, we have to assume that they are not predictable. Series of unpredictable influences on the system – circumstances, genome, etc. sometimes lead to changes in the set of realized stable states and sometimes even lead to changes in not realized stable states.
The idea of large number of small random changes is a broadly used idea (see for example concept of Shoretz on this site) and it is a useful element of a macro model describing changes in the observed set of biological forms.
Focus on combinatorial characteristics and above example of introduction of one biological form into environment could lead to illusion that there is a “guiding principle” of development of biological forms, of “adjustment” of biological forms to their environment, of development of biological in a form of a “family tree”. This is only an illusion.
There is no meaningful way to describe humans as a biological form.
The essential characteristic of humans is that humans are social creatures; hence social characteristics are essential characteristics, when one tries to define a form.
As social creatures humans perpetually change their environment.
Hence, it is impossible to define invariant environment, which allows finding a stable state, which could be called a biological form.
Concept of species is less flexible than presented here concept of biological form. If there is no meaningful way to define humans as a biological form, then there is no way to define humans as species.
Note that there are many misguided attempts to fit humans in limited definition of species on par with animals; they inevitably lead to bizarre conclusions, as the need to limit reproduction of humans to provide space for animals.
This inability to understand that humans perpetually restructure biological system and as result change biological forms stem from methodological mistake, from an attempt to squeeze humans into classification, where there is no place for the phenomenon of social creatures, which control environment.